Language and sense organs

    Hello, Habr! I present to you the translation of the article " How your language reflects the senses you use " by Sophie Hardach.

    What is easier for you to describe: the color of the grass or its smell? The answer may depend on where you come from, and, in particular, on what language you speak from childhood.

    People are often characterized as visual beings. If you are a native English speaker, you can intuitively agree to this. After all, English has a rich vocabulary for flowers and geometric shapes, but few words for smells. However, a recent global study shows that it varies from culture to culture whether we perceive the world mainly by observing, listening, sniffing, tasting or feeling. And this preference is reflected in our language.


    Shot from the movie “Arrival” The

    study was based on tests conducted by 26 researchers in 20 languages ​​in Europe, North and South America, Asia, Africa and Australia, in different places - from large modern cities to remote indigenous villages. Participants were asked to describe so-called sensory stimulants, such as colored paper, a sip of sugar water, or the smell of a flavored card.

    The results show that our way of life, our surroundings, and even the shape of our homes can influence how we perceive things and how easily (or not) we manage to express this perception in words.
    “I think we often think of language as a medium for transmitting information about the world,” said Asifa Majid, professor of language, communication, and cultural knowledge at the University of York, who led the study. “You can see it in the way we think about feelings and how it is reflected in modern science.”
    Majid says that, for example, many textbooks call people visual beings.
    “The rationale for this was a larger number of brain regions responsible for visual perception than for sense of smell. But another important proof is language. So, people often say, well, there are simply more words to talk about the things that we see, so it’s hard for us to talk about smells, ”she says.
    However, Majid argues that some societies are more focused on smell or sound. In her own study of the hunter-gatherer community on the Malay Peninsula, Jahai, Majid created a scent dictionary as varied and precise as the English color dictionary.

    The study involved specialists in such different languages ​​as Umpila, which is only spoken by about 100 people in Australia, and English, which is spoken by about a billion people around the world. A total of 313 people were tested. The researchers gave them different stimulants, and then measured the level of “codability” of each group, that is, the level of agreement between the answers in each group. A high level of codability means that a group has a consistent way of talking, say, about certain colors. A low level of codability may indicate that the group does not have a common, generally accepted dictionary for these colors or that it cannot identify them.

    Native English speakers spoke best of all about shapes and colors. They all agreed, for example, that something was a triangle or green.

    Lao and Farsi speakers, on the other hand, have succeeded in naming tastes. When bitter tasting water was offered, all Farsi speakers in the study described it as “talkh,” which in Farsi means “bitter.”

    With native English speakers, the situation is different. When they are offered the same water with a bitter taste, “English speakers describe its taste from bitter to salty, sour, good, ordinary, mint, like ear wax, medicine, and so on,” says Majid. She also claims that this kind of tasteful confusion constantly happens with native English speakers in laboratory tests: “They describe the bitter as salty and sour, they describe the sour as bitter, they describe the salt as sour. So, although we have a vocabulary, there seems to be some confusion in the minds of people about how to transfer their taste sensations into the language. ”
    Interestingly, the linguistic communities that had very high scores for the tasting task - Farsi, Lao and Cantonese - all have a superbly delicious cuisine that cultivates a wide range of tastes, including bitterness.

    Other participants struggled with certain tasks because their language simply did not have enough words for what they were shown. Umpila, the language spoken by the hunter-gatherer community in Australia, has only words for black, white, and red. However, it was easier for Umpil's speakers to describe smells. This tendency to smell, rather than vision, is found among hunter-gatherers around the world, including the aforementioned Jahai. The reason may be related to life and hunting in forests rich in odors.

    For those of us who spend more time in front of screens than among fragrant plants, research can be an incentive to search for new sensory sensations. But it is also a reminder of the value of linguistic diversity. Ampila, for example, is threatened with extinction. The number of native speakers of Umpila is reduced. And yet, when it comes to describing odors, this rare, endangered language obviously has an edge over fast-paced English.

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